SBJ/Nov. 8-14, 2010/Opinion

A perfect fit for sports philanthropy

The threat of childhood obesity to the health of America’s children has never been greater. For the first time in our history, the United States is raising a generation of children whose health and wellness is in jeopardy.

Professional sports teams, leagues, players and sponsors possess significant philanthropic clout when focusing their diverse community assets in a strategic and tactical manner. Sports philanthropy as practiced by the Big Four sports leagues has grown in scope, sophistication and revenue-generating results in the last few years. Just take a look at what the leagues are doing individually in the fight against childhood obesity.

NBA Fit: A comprehensive health and wellness platform promoting healthy active lifestyles for children and adults. The program strives to engage 1 million kids, adults and families to pledge to stay fit, and uses NBA players to share important health fitness tips.

NFL Play 60: Designed to tackle obesity by getting kids active through school- and team-based programs.

Major League Baseball: Programs that keep kids active by playing baseball including Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities and the Urban Youth Academy, along with other efforts through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

NHL: Programming support to nonprofit youth hockey organizations. Gives 45,000 boys and girls the opportunity to play and stay in shape.

How can the sports industry work as one to harness its power to create positive long-term systemic impact on childhood health and wellness?

Now is the time for a unique level of teamwork across all leagues, national health care initiatives, community organizations, elected officials, schools and families to put “sneakers on the ground” and begin the return to a healthier lifestyle for millions of America’s children. Going it alone won’t get it done.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a leader in the “battle of the bulge,” the five key strategies necessary for success are:

1. Provide healthier foods at school.

2. Increase the frequency, intensity and duration of physical activity at school.

3. Improve the availability of healthy foods at home.

4. Improve access to safe places to play and exercise for young people.

5. Reduce screen (video games, TV) time.

First lady Michelle Obama has created significant momentum with her Let’s Move initiative, working with the Partnership for a Healthier America. This national program will target industry-specific solutions in fighting childhood obesity that can be measured and tracked. What better engine of teamwork than all four major sports leagues joining forces with the national initiatives. Imagine the power of this combined engine if all of these league programs could be synthesized into one.

Giant check presentations at halftime and spiffy photo ops on the White House lawn or at sports venues and community centers aren’t going to make a major difference. It’s time for a Sneaker Corps: Marshal all these forces and harness the national Let’s Move effort with proven winning programs like KaBoom!, Playworks, Team-Up for Youth, Positive Coaching Alliance, Boys & Girls Clubs, and hundreds of local youth-focused organizations.

Just look at the power of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when pink is the color of choice in pro sports and throughout America. Pro sports should exemplify the teamwork to win the fight for healthier generations in the future.

Playing for the sheer fun of it is disappearing in our society. Elite athletes are being groomed at ridiculously early ages. Pay-to-play is taking over youth sports. Physical education programs in K-12 are as rare as kids making up new stick-and-ball games, but research shows that play is essential to a child’s development.

It has been said that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the next best time is today. If we are to realize a generation fit for the future, now is the time to plant those seeds.

Andy Dolich (andy.dolich@gmail.com) has more than four decades of experience in the professional sports industry, including executive positions in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.

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